D-I-Y's stylish champion, Todd Oldham

Acclaimed fashion designer Todd Oldham (left) is now an advocate of the D-I-Y movement.
Acclaimed fashion designer Todd Oldham (above) is now an advocate of the D-I-Y movement. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Craft lines of former fashion designer Todd Oldham are now his dearest projects

NEW YORK • Todd Oldham can recall the precise moment he lost interest in fashion.

It was in 1997 and he was working on an emerald green, silk satin shift that Cindy Crawford would wear in his spring runway show. The dress looked sweet and simple, but its construction was anything but.

With ribbon straps made in France and fabric woven in South Korea, the piece was silk-screened with a print of a cherry tree made by Oldham on acetate, over which the designer painted a spray of cherry blossoms that were embroidered with freshwater pearls back in Texas, where his clothes were put together in his family's factory.

The whole endeavour, he said, "involved so many countries and so much time and expense, I thought: 'This is insane.' It felt like maybe I should be doing something else with my time".

With that, he closed his wholesale collection business.

He had always chafed at the primary engine of fashion, which is to render one's product obsolete every six months. And he was making so many other things so well: furniture, fabric, housewares, interiors, television shows, photographs and books.

As the host of Todd Time, a three- minute D-I-Y session on MTV's House Of Style, he was also teaching a generation how to make just about anything, using flea market finds, perhaps a bit of rickrack, a glue gun and a pair of scissors.

He said: "All I did was stop doing the one thing and the one thing was real loud... Fashion is very noisy and it kind of sticks with people in funny ways, considering it's this ephemeral thing we often just toss under the bed or in the dryer."

Fashion is noisy and he had a lively run with it. His clothes were inspired by pot holders, kitschy paintings or garage sale treasures, all expressed in exuberant colours on cut velvet and silks, with trompe l'oeil effects that were the result of elaborate printing techniques, intricate beading and embroidery.

Kim Hastreiter, founder and co-editor of Paper magazine, said: "I always felt Todd was an artist who accidentally became a fashion designer. He accidentally made clothes and it just ran away... But it was all one thing, art and fashion and furniture and photographs."

Oldham shot many photographs for Paper, including a project in 2001 that featured, among other characters, actress Amy Sedaris in a platinum bouffant wig, faux sunburn and a cloud of white tulle.

At 53, he is still a slight figure with the gentle Texas accent that so charmed New Yorkers in 1989, when he and Tony Longoria, his partner in business and life, moved here from Dallas. They met when Oldham was 18 and Longoria, then a buyer at Neiman Marcus, was 25.

In the last 15 years, he has been the creative director of Old Navy, revamped furniture for La-Z-Boy and made products for Target, among others. He has produced 21 books with Ammo Books, including a monograph on singer Joan Jett.

Dearest to his heart are his craft lines, Kid Made Modern and Hand Made Modern (for grown-ups): kits and supplies sold at Target and, by the end of this year, the gift shops at the Brooklyn, Getty and Guggenheim Museums that spread his D-I-Y mantra. There are also Kid Made how-to videos - how to make beaded flowers, say, or a robot of anodised wire - on YouTube.

"It's a very precious thing to me," he said. "It's about teaching people to make stuff and giving them the tools to do so."

Nonetheless, his fashion creations are still being celebrated. Next April, Rhode Island School of Design's museum will present a retrospective of his works. He will restyle the 60 or so pieces so each outfit will be a mix of elements from different years. "I thought I was done with clothes, so to revisit them has been a joy... They were made much more beautifully than I remember. All you remember at the time is what went wrong."

Some of his friends have been recipients of his D-I-Y crafts.

Take, for example, Sedaris, who is perhaps as crafty as Oldham. They have been collaborators since he saw her in the wonderfully demented, late 1990s Comedy Central series Strangers With Candy, and asked her if he could photograph her.

Over the years, he has built her hutches for her rabbits, a screen door for her bedroom and all manner of furniture, flooring, cabinets, chair covers, skirts and jeans. For her part, Sedaris makes Oldham ghosts out of tissue paper and sometimes pot holders.

"I can't think of anything he hasn't made me," Sedaris said. "He'd come over and always want to do something, so I learnt to put together a really good tool kit."

Recently, he is less restless, which is a good thing, she added, "because I don't have anything left for him to do. He's made it all perfect".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2015, with the headline 'D-I-Y's stylish champion'. Print Edition | Subscribe